Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Outer Limits - Andrew Strong

Long ago, before most of you were born, I used to listen to music on vinyl.  A vinyl single was usually about three minutes long, and a vinyl album, or LP, twenty minutes a side.  When I started playing in bands, and writing my own songs, I thought it was best to write three minute songs, or to think in sets of songs forty minutes long.  The technology of playing music dictated what I wrote.

When I watch a film I wonder how the screenwriter’s plotting is influenced by a movie's eventual length.  If a film is ninety minutes long, each of its three acts gets to be thirty minutes.  People will feel short changed if a movie is less than an hour, and often complain if it goes on for too long.

But what dictates the length of a book?  I’m led to believe that publishers prefer children's novels to be shorter, but why?  Is it simply because huge books don't sell? Are they too daunting or too heavy?

The original draft of a book I’ve just finished was 120,000 words.  My agent insisted I cut in half. I did so, and although the book is neater, and sharper, I think it’s lost something of its rambling essence.  (Can an essence ramble?)

So, like a DJ who creates an extended mix, or like the Directors Cut of a movie available on DVD, I wonder whether it’s possible to publish both long and shorter versions of my new book.  And while I’m at it, I wonder if I could write an even shorter short one.  Take this to its logical conclusion and my book will end up as a short story, a poem, or even a tweet.  Perhaps it can exist, like matter, in a variety of states. The book is about music, so I suppose I could include a cd, or a link to a download.

These days so many of the contexts in which artists work are  in flux.  Writing is no longer confined to print, but to a myriad of forms.  We can write blogs of infinite length (that no one will read).  We can tweet pithy wisdom. (Nobody will read these either).  At sea in the online world, we have no limit to their imaginings.  I can write and record my music at home, upload it on to Soundcloud and don't have to concern myself with the memory capacity of the means of distribution.  The LP, the CD, even the concept of music of any finite length has been challenged by software such as Koan which enables music to be ‘generative’ – that is, the composer determines certain settings (key, pitch, tempo, arrangement) and the music unfolds infinitely.

As someone who trained as a painter, then spent ten years in music before writing books, I see many art forms suddenly released from their bonds, in freefall.  Of course it is liberating: there’s a new world out there, and it goes on forever. 

Writers have always enjoyed creating their own restraints: Joyce’s Ulysses, Georges Perec, the works of Italo Calvino, the Oulipo movement, they have all sought to devise structures to give their work some limit, a reaction to, perhaps, a sense of reality as too chaotic. 

Reality is too daunting to capture in its entirety, so we all need to be selective, to choose, to  limit.  But the boundaries of our reality are dissolving in the online world.  We get vertigo, we run to find the edges, there aren’t any.

And our security, like the security we get from good parents who give clear boundaries, is threatened.  It’s a brave new world.  It's daunting and exciting in equal measure.

So, if and when my new 'work' eventually comes out, maybe it will be in several forms, the least of which will be the printed book.  And if you miss most of them, please make sure you don't miss the tweet.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Douglas Adams wrote and rewrote Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. If you ever follow the various versions, you'll see. Book, radio play, vinyl recording, TV series, all were different. Even the recent(ish) movie has some of his original work in it. Different again.

So why shouldn't you produce your own "director's cut"? BTW, I absolutely refuse to pay to read the tweet. ;-)

Joan Lennon said...

Interesting times!

Cavan Scott said...

Neil Gaiman released his 'author's preferred version' of American God, which to be honest I prefer to the original.

Cavan Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

You asked about the "long book" problem. Here's what I know. Publishers try to make money by selling foreign rights to as many regions as will buy. In fact, the potential of such deals is often what brings one m/s an offer in the first place, while another is turned down.

Note: Foreign rights potential may also be the cause of publisher's enthusiasm for less specific geographic settings.

However, back to topic. A "long book" will therefore require the additional cost of a long time in translation and a larger fee for the translator, so a long book can be costlier and therefore less viable, economically, all round.

The thickness of a long book also can put some children off, so make it less popular. Also, many of the books listed for awards - especially the regional awards that are run by librarians who really understand their school's readerships - tend towards shorter rather than longer.

Or maybe it's just sympathy for a busy reader, rather than empathy with the writer's needs? :-)

Yes, Andrew, fyi, I'm writing a loooong book.

Penny Dolan - (signing in seems to have got complicated or google dominated here.)

C.J.Busby said...

I was fascinated to read, a while ago, that the original version of Hamlet was about three times longer, and so clearly not written for the stage - it had to be drastically shortened to make it a stageable play. Clearly Shakespeare was writing it for himself more than for an audience in the first instance. I quite like the idea of a 'directors cut' of a novel...